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Heading towards Nation

The nearest métro to my rather down-at-heel hotel meublé on the corner of the Rue des Martyrs and Rue Clauzel was Saint-Georges, but it made more sense to walk up to Pigalle. Then travelling east on Line No 2, across the top of Paris under the hill of Montmartre, through Anvers, Barbès Rochechouart, La Chapelle, Stalingrad, and wheeling south through Colonel Fabien, Belleville, Couronnes, Ménilmontant, Père Lachaise, Philippe Auguste, Alexandre Dumas, Avron and the terminus, Nation, and work: the École Berlitz and its wolfish directeur, M Fontana, and the two secretarial Genevièves, neither particularly friendly though perhaps for different reasons.

My arrival in Paris in March 1974 was my first brush with abroad (England not really qualifying) and I was deeply impressed from the start when I checked in to the simple little hotel that had been booked for me in the rue des Quatre-Vents, a step away from the Café Brasserie Le Danton, the Boulevard Saint-Germain, the churches of St Sulpice and St Germain-des-Prés, the Luxembourg gardens, the Sorbonne and the Panthéon. What an incredibly beautiful city ‑ if beauty can ease the heart surely one would be happy here.

But a quick glance at the first pay cheque was enough to confirm the suspicion that it would not be in this beautiful quartier of Paris that I would be lodging. And so off to the less glamorous ninth arrondissement and the first of a succession of cold water flats, not quite starving in a garret, but at times shivering.

A cheap dinner could still be had – it was just as well‑ and cheap wine, baguette and camembert. Your three-course (though the third might be an apple) prix fixe dinner cost pretty much what one earned in an hour, which, I later learned was about ten per cent of what the students paid for their teaching. A good mark-up. The métro not only got you around –usually fast‑ but the names of the stations also provided a nearly free sound-poetry of the city and, if one took the trouble to look, an embedded history: Colonel Fabien, Père Lachaise, Ledru-Rollin, Lamarck Caulaincourt ... who were these people? (A communist résistant; Louis XIV’s confessor, a Jesuit of course; a nineteenth century left-wing political exile; a naturalist and early evolutionist, sharing his billet with a military aide to Bonaparte.)

The historian Richard Cobb, who spent long years in Paris as a young man, must have lodged close to where I stayed, all too briefly, when I first arrived (the reference to the Danton statue).

One could never associate the métro with threat, not then anyhow, it represented the map, just below the surface, sometimes high above the rooftops, of journeys regularly undertaken, in the knowledge of a welcome at the far end, then of the return, among a few sleepy passengers, to the comfort and safety of bed. As one emerged below the aggressive and posturing statue of Danton – de l’audace, encore de l’audace, and all that – it was indeed the sense of returning home, to base. Danton was like a familiar lighthouse, a symbol of peace, the promise of sleep. How often would I emerge there, just before the métro closed for the night, in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, having travelled back from Mme Thomas’s, changing at CONCORDE! There would be other regular destinations, on the outward journey: PORTE DE CHARENTON, PORTE DE VERSAILLES, BALARD, PORTE D’ORLÉANS, indeed most places save PIGALLE or BLANCHE. The poesy of the métro draws heavily both on its familiarity and its banality, its ordinariness: it is hard to take FILLES DU CALVAIRE seriously, SEVRES-BABYLONE poses no threat, SOLFERINO, CHAMBRE DES DEPUTES, as seen from below the ground, are entirely unprestigious. LOURMEL, despite its vague promise of aristocratic distinction, is seen only in passing; it is somewhere I have never got out at. MALESHERBES, on the other hand, offers the prospect of comfortable wealth, slow-moving, roomy lifts and carpeted stairs, of medical reassurance ...
... on the whole, the carte du métro represents, or used to represent, an ever-reliable map of reassurance, familiarity, and often, as in the case of GAITE, appropriateness. GLACIERE really is what it says it is, NATIONALE, as one would expect of that adjective, is scruffy, run-down and dreary, even if the old, sculpted, filigreed carriages of the Nord-Sud (so much in that name, too, a monument to Paris – 1900) have been replaced, and ORLEANS-CLIGNANCOURT has become inodore, and the little Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet man, in his bowler, raising his glass and emptying it d’un seul trait, has long since disappeared from the tunnels. How suitable that the evocation of the métro should have played such a large part in the literature of exile, during the Occupation years, in the pages of the London monthly, La France Libre! How appropriate, too, that in his recollections of a very deprived childhood in the XIIIme arrondissement, the populist writer and argotier, Alphonse Boudard, should have associated the métro with his generally unsuccessful pursuit, as a pimply sixteen-year-old, of girls encountered in the favourable conditions, below ground, of the evening rush hour: (`She got out at PLACE D’ITALIE, unfortunately she took the corridor DIRECTION ETOILE, and I was heading NATION’) ...

14/12/2014